This shift in thinking on thrifty behavior has led some economists to believe we’ll be best served not by sermons on virtue but by devising ways to help people act in their financial best interest—much as previous conditions “helped” them to act against it. Imaginative economists are already devising ways to help spenders become better savers. In a recent YouTube address, President Obama laid out what he called “common-sense changes that will help families put away money for the future.” One such change would expand the implementation of a program championed by economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Rather than having workers opt in to their employer’s 401(k) retirement-savings plan, as is commonly the case now, Thaler and Sunstein advocate a system by which employees would automatically be enrolled, with an option to opt out. When one company adopted such a strategy, participation in its 401(k) program went from 65 percent to over 90 percent. These new participants hadn’t been magically convinced that savings were a rational idea or a moral obligation. Instead, they’d been presented the choice in a new way that helped overcome their natural proclivities.
Ironically, Lauren Weber now sees herself as lucky to be cheap: She comes by it naturally. In her book, she extols the values of cheapness, but she also understands that it’s time to put the wagging finger away. “It just doesn’t work to preach at people,” she told me. “Cotton Mather tried it 300 years ago, and where did it get us? We’re now $10 trillion in debt.” Loewenstein suggests that, whether you’re a spender or a saver, you should accept this trait rather than struggle against it—then find a way to live a financially manageable life. “We don’t need to cultivate a different national character,” he says. “We need to work with the existing national character to achieve national goals.” Cheapness may not be a virtue, but it is akin to greatness. Some are born cheap. Some achieve cheapness. And some can hope to have cheapness thrust upon them.